Written by Dr. Patricia Pimentel Selassie. 

We all have reason to keep our brains as sharp as possible.   Humans are living longer and some of us are reaching age 100.  And we want those 100 years to be long, active years with working minds so we can enjoy life: be touched, moved and inspired by the intelligence and wonders of life.  Plus, we have the power to create with our minds.  I love Muhammad Ali’s quote,“If my mind can conceive it, and my heart can believe it, then I can achieve it.” So in honor of creation and intelligence and long life, let’s delve into the topic of brain health.

Unfortunately, keeping our brains healthy can be tough because deterioration in the brain can begin very early, in a person’s twenties.  The brain becomes smaller; the volume decreases.  The layer covering nerves and neurons, called the myelin sheath, loses its integrity.  The cortex of the brain begins to thin.  The action of neurotransmitters like serotonin, acetylcholine, and dopamine happens less efficiently.  In addition, you can develop an accumulation of neurofibrillary tangles which is protein stuck in your brain similar to gum or tar.  These accumulated changes will lead to forgetfulness, a decreased ability to maintain focus, and difficulty solving problems.

The first signs of brain deterioration are forgetting where you put your keys or your cell phone. You forget names, even the names of your close friends, grandchildren, or pets. You forget vocabulary words.  You miss appointments. Or the one that gets me: walking into a room and then forgetting why you walked there.

It can start to affect your life, waste your time, but this is the least of it.  If left unchecked, symptoms oftentimes lead to more serious conditions, such as dementia and depression, or even Alzheimer’s disease.

About a quarter of all people over the age of 65 have mild cognitive impairment, which can lead to dementia, and about 1/6 of those with dementia develop Alzheimer’s, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.  In 2030, about 8 million Americans will be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.  That’s all the people in the five boroughs of NYC!  That is a lot of Americans affected by this disease, and think of the ripple of the millions of family members affected, not just emotionally, but financially as well.

The good news is that there is a lot we can do to prevent this.

Maintaining a healthy lifestyle by eating vegetables and fruits, eating good fats like olive oil, coconut oil, avocado, walnuts, and fish, exercising, maintain an easygoing, low-stress emotional state, meditation and prayer always contributes to healthier brain.   Even more exciting is that fairly recent research shows that our brains can grow brand new cells throughout adulthood; this is called neurogenesis. (Previous theories had stated that once brain cells died, there was no coming back.)  Furthermore, research has found that the brain has a life-long capacity to learn new skills, absorb new information, create new memories, and even create new neurons.  Neurons can grow and connect with unused neurons, or around areas of damage.  The brain can heal and adjust after experiencing disease or injury.  Scientists call this neuroplasticity.

The ticket to neuroplasticity — growing, healing, and maintaining our brains – is to stretch them by doing a sort of calisthenics of the brain.  Everyday use of your brain is not enough.  Try out some new patterns. Think something different.  Get into someone else’s shoes. These activities are examples of ways that you can stretch and heal your brain.  Careful, you might actually discover, it’s a whole lot of fun.  ;)

  • Crochet, or if you know how to crochet, learn to knit!
  • Take a different route home.
  • Keep up with technology.
  • Play Scrabble and Sudoku, do word searches and crossword puzzles. But challenge yourself to play a game you don’t usually play.
  • Learn how to waltz or tango.  Believe me; those different steps will stretch your brain.
  • Learn a few words in a different language.
  • Read or learn about a new culture; get a book with beautiful pictures.
  • Learn the life story of a world leader, celebrity, or business mogul. Find out about what their world view, rituals, and family dynamics.  Look at how their life is different from yours.
  • Read a different section of the newspaper.
  • Read a different newspaper; pick The Post instead of The Daily News or The Washington Post in place of The New York Times.
  • Read poetry or a fiction novel, especially if you read non-fiction, or vice versa.
  • Listen to a different radio station or radio host, maybe one with a view opposite yours.

There are countless ways to stretch your brain.  Do you have any suggestions you can write in the comment section below?  If you would like to share your experience of trying one of these activities, let us hear about that, too.

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